Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Beware of the Leaven of the Pharisees

"Beware of the Leaven of the Pharisees", Jesus said. The Pharisees in the Gospels are characterised by self-righteousness and legalism, they believed that they had a righteousness that was pleasing to God from their observance of the law and they looked down on others because of it.

And that is what we need to beware of. The tendency comes in so many forms, a pride in our right doctrine as opposed to the fellows down the road who don't have it, a pride in our standing apart from the ecumenical movement, even a pride in our separation from those Churches that do not separate from error.

Do not misunderstand me, doctrine is important - but if we know the truth, then it is because we have been led to see it by God, it is not because we are smarter than others. Indeed, there are many really smart people who are atheists! You have nothing that you did not receive, and therefore you have nothing to boast about.You did not open your own eyes, God opened them for you.

Not having fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness is important. There are many churches today that are not actually churches at all because Christ is not preached there - and there, but for the grace of God, we go. Again, it is Christ who keeps his people, we do not keep ourselves, and therefore the fact that we are not involved in such things as the ecumenical movement is a reason to fall on our knees and thank God, humbly, that he has kept us from being deceived.

The Pharisees earned their name from their desire to stand apart from the world - the name means 'separated ones'. There is much that is commendable in that desire, but sadly it took the wrong form. In their zeal to be 'separate' they added to the Law of God.

One of the worst manifestations of legalism is when a Church adds to the law of God. There is a story told of John Wesley, how he met a man who had been influenced by Russian Orthodoxy. The man said to Wesley words to the effect, "Mr. Wesley, you are a godly man full of zeal, one thing thou lackest - grow a beard." For this man, only men with beards could be saved.

The Bible condemns all those who said that "unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." Now, God actually commanded circumcision under the Law, and yet those who forced that upon the Churches are condemned. What shall we say then to those who impose a law that God has not spoken? The man Wesley encountered was a legalist of that type, a man who has an extra-Biblical law that he wants to impose on others.

And now let me be controversial: teetotalism is not commanded in the Bible. That means that to tell a person "unless you abstain from all alcoholic beverages you cannot be saved" is to fall under the condemnation of the legalist. Now, the Bible is quite clear that drunkenness is a sin, being intoxicated with alcohol is wrong. But alcohol itself is never forbidden by God. I recently had the misfortune to be on the receiving end of an hysterical tirade from a man on the internet who, because I would not agree with him that alcohol is in and of itself evil, called me a false shepherd. That is the leaven of the Pharisees.

Modern myths notwithstanding, Jesus made alcoholic wine at the wedding at Cana - it is clear from the passage that the wedding took place shortly before Passover, but the grape harvest in Israel does not begin until July, and so there was no fresh grape juice available. Grape juice naturally ferments when stored, and the technology to pasteurize it was not available in ancient Israel, thus they had been drinking alcoholic wine before it ran out, and what Jesus made was like that which they had been drinking already.

Before someone accuses me of saying that Jesus was encouraging drunkenness, I should add that a wedding feast would have a very large number of people - commonly whole villages took part - and that this is in the context of a culture with a strong taboo against drunkenness.

Now, I am not saying "unless you drink alcohol you cannot be saved", that would be silly. Rather I am saying let he who drinks in moderation do it to the glory of God, and let he who abstains do it to the glory of God. But let neither judge the other in respect of drink, knowing it is to God, and not to you, that the other answers. Do not bind the conscience of the moderate drinker or the total abstainer. Tell the drunkard that he is mocking God by his act, and tell the legalist that he is taking God's name in vain. Let every man be persuaded in his own mind, and then let him do what he will, within the limits that God really has prescribed.

Beware of legalism. It kills. I have used the absolute forbidding of alcohol as an example, but there are many others. We are not wiser than God, and to order abstinence where God has ordered restraint is sinful.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Jacques More, "Serious Mistranslations of the Bible" - first thoughts.

A friend of mine has asked me to review Jacques More's book Serious Mistranslations of the Bible (2011, Jarom Books) for him, and I have agreed. A book with a title like Serious Mistranslations of the Bible is setting out to be controversial. After all, at least by implication More is saying that at least the vast majority of English Bible translations contain "serious mistranslations'.

But Jacques More is not the sort of man to shy away from controversy. A former motor-mechanic turned theologian, he began his career as a Christian author with Will There be Non-Christians in Heaven? in which he argued that there are those among non-Christians who are already born-again (See here). His second book argues that Church leadership should not be exclusively male, and his third book was an anti-Calvinist tract called So You Think You're Chosen? In many ways Serious Mistranslations is a sequel to these books, or perhaps a re-issuing of some of the material in these books in an expanded form. Thus it begins with a discussion of the Greek word eklektos, translated 'Elect' in many passages. More argues that it has been persistently mistranslated since the time of Augustine, and that its primary meaning should refer to quality rather than choice.

A quick check of every major committee-written English translation that I possess (KJV, RV, RSV, NASB, REB, ESV, NKJV and NIV), shows that none of them favour More's translation. Left to itself this would be an argument from authority and therefore possibly fallacious, but rather it should be a pause for thought. More is not a Greek scholar, he is a student of New Testament Greek. His book is worryingly lacking in footnotes for a volume that throws doubt on the truthfulness of all English Bible versions. This worries me. I have only begun to read it, but it seems that More's method of dealing with passages that he disagrees with is to claim that they are mistranslated by practically everyone else.

Perhaps it is the format of the book, but it certainly gives the impression that More deals with words alone, and without due attention to context, perhaps as a result of his education. I have a great deal of experience of godly people adopting word-study fallacies where they obtain the meaning of a word in one place from its meaning in another, rather than seeking the meaning of a word in its immediate context. I am no expert in Greek - but neither is More.

The man on his own may be right, but he needs to offer compelling arguments. In the interests of full disclosure, may I add that I am somewhat biassed against books like this one that are self-published, since they have not had to pass an editorial pen.